Forest dwellers or farmers?

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I spend much of my time trying to convince people that poor rural families need forests and trees. That’s because most city dwellers simply don’t realize how much these families rely on fuelwood, medicinal plants, wild foods, and other things forests provide and how important it is to make sure they don’t lose them. Sometimes I also use the terms forest dwellers or forest dependent people to emphasize how much forests mean to them.

If one is not careful though, it is relatively easy to go from there to downplaying the fact that most of those same families also grow crops and raise animals. That is particularly true if you are trying to persuade park services or forest departments not to throw them out of places that governments have said should remain forests. From there it is only one small step to accepting the idea farming should be prohibited in all these areas.

That is what worries Andrew Walker. In ’Seeing farmers for the trees: Community forestry and the arborealisation of agriculture in northern Thailand’ he argues community forestry advocates exaggerate how much Thai villagers depend on forests in order to get forestry officials to recognize their rights over the areas they live in. He also says advocates play down villagers’ agricultural activities for the same reason.

Walker has no problem with recognizing villagers’ rights. But he doesn’t think the whole area should become community forest. Instead, villagers should get individual titles to some of the land and be allowed to plant crops on it. Otherwise they may have nowhere to farm, and the community forest dream could become a nightmare.

Walker’s concern applies particularly to Asian countries where forestry departments have permanently designated large areas of land as government forest even though they have had no trees on them for many years and people are planting crops there. The issue also frequently comes up in the context of indigenous territories, community forests, and extractive reserves in Latin America, where the governments have not given enough thought to people’s need to grow crops.

We need to keep working to make development agencies more aware of how important forests are for rural people. However, Walker is right to remind us that most people who live in or near forests also need somewhere they can plant crops. Governments should remove land that has been cultivated for many years from the forest estate and leave some aside for crops when planning community forests.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper or to send comments or queries to the author, you can write Andrew Walker at andrew.walker@anu.edu.au

The full reference for the paper is: Walker, Andrew. 2004. Seeing farmers for the trees: Community forestry and arborealisation of agriculture in northern Thailand, Asia Pacific Viewpoint 45 (3): 311-24.